Recommended books: Christmas 2019

Reading time: Just over 5 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time for holiday reading? Here’s my semi-annual roundup of books I’ve read this year.  

I aim to read 52 books every 12 months and my habit is to post a complete list of the names of them for you, in November and June. Here is a description of the remaining 26 books I’ve enjoyed this year. (In my summer list, I told you about the 26 books I’d finished earlier this year.)

Yes, I really do read more than a book a week! I give you this list of recommended books at the end of November to help you with your Christmas shopping and your own holiday reading. 

Please note I don’t generally read mystery/thrillers, sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes don’t usually run in those directions.  

Whenever I publish this list people often ask me how I manage to read so many books each year. Or how I can suggest they read more books. Let me direct you to a blog post I’ve written on the topic. And a video I’ve created.

Once you’ve reviewed these posts, consider reading one of the books I’ve recommended below…

NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

1-Brown, Craig. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret. Very well written — often amusing — book about the late Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth written in a literary and engaging style. What a terrible burden to be born into the royal family! Fans of the Netflix show The Crown will gobble up this clever and entertaining book.

2-Coetzee, J.M. Boyhood. Very evocative memoir about growing up in South Africa, in a new development north of Cape Town. The Nobel-prize winning author adopts a third-person voice to tell the story, which lends it a certain sharp, unsentimental air. Interestingly, there is almost no figurative language in this book, still he is able to communicate his love of the high veld and his discomfort with apartheid.

3-Luscombe, Brenda. Marriage-ology. A smart and very funny guide to staying together, drawing on science, experts and personal experience. Exceptionally well written.

4-McBride, James. The Color of Water. I discovered this book in a New York Times list of the best memoirs of the last 50 years, and I second their endorsement. This is a charming memoir about growing up in a mixed-race family in the 1960s and ’70s. The subtitle — A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother — only hints at the complexity, for in addition to being white, McBride’s mother was also the daughter of a rabbi. Beautifully written.

5-Kantor, Jodi and Twohey, Megan. She Said. The remarkable story of the Harvey Weinstein saga, told from the point of view of the reporters who first broke the story in the New York Times. To me, the newsroom elements were deeply fascinating and I appreciated the way it reminded me of All The President’s Men by Woodward and Bernstein.

6-Nussbaum, Emily. I like to Watch: Arguing my way through the TV revolution. A series of essays designed to make you feel good about enjoying TV. The author is a TV writer for the New Yorker magazine and a Pulitzer Prize winner herself. However you feel about television, do yourself a favour and read the fine writing of Emily Nussbaum.

7-von Sothen, John. Monsieur Mediocre. Took me an awfully long time to finish this memoir (maybe five weeks) because the thread of the story wasn’t quite engaging enough, so I kept dipping into other books. But he is a highly amusing writer and it’s a fun story — about an American transplanted in Paris — especially for anyone who knows just a little French.

8-Jillette, Penn. Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales. Fascinating memoir although terribly scattered. It’s pretty clear that magician Penn has ADHD. And he uses the F-word at least twice on every page. But the book is funny and interesting, and I give him full credit for losing so much weight with a challenging eating plan.

9-Clear, James. Atomic Habits. Too bad the rest of the book isn’t as well written as the arresting introductory paragraph. Useful information in this book and highly practical. Just not quite as readable at The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

10-Mizrahi, Isaac. I.M. The title comes from the writer’s initials, I.M (get it? — I’m!) Engaging memoir by a flamboyant American fashion designer. Well written and lots of fun — even if, like me, you’re not particularly interested in fashion.

11-Manguso, Sarah. Two kinds of decay. As a Harvard undergraduate in 1995, Sarah Manguso contracted a neurological disease called chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy or CDIF. This memoir tells that story. Although she is a poet and has a fine ear for figurative language, I found her writing style here to be overly mannered and self-conscious. Interesting, but hard to warm to. 

Not recommended

12-Fallon, Allison. Indestructible. 

FICTION (in order of preference)

13-Bezmozgis, David. Immigrant City. Book of beautifully written short stories about the immigrant experience. Deeply sophisticated characters.

14-Waldman, Amy. The Submission. Outstanding first novel with an exceptionally clever plot — there’s a “blind” competition to create a 9-11 memorial in New York and the winner turns out to be Muslim — and superb figurative language. I’m very interested in reading more writing by Amy Waldman.

15-Phillips, Julia. Disappearing Earth. Story about a disappearance of two girls in Russia. Kind of turns the murder mystery genre on its head, giving it a literary edge. Superbly written.

16-Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography. I have little interest in dogs, but I found this story, about Elizabeth Barret Browning’s dog to be quite delightful. And, at long last, I have read a Virginia Woolf book.

17-Szalay, David. Turbulence. Not the type of book I usually like — not nearly enough happens. But I found the characters interesting and while the writing was mostly unfigurative, I found it sharp and engaging.

18-Brodesser-Akner, Taffy. Fleishman is in Trouble. Well written novel about ambition, work and a marriage that has fallen asunder. But it’s a first novel and this otherwise skilled writer kind of blew her management of the plot. Biggest problem? A narrator who kept popping up out of nowhere.

19-Stevens, Nell. The Victorian and the Romantic. Started well, but not quite as engaging as her earlier book, Bleaker House, which I adored. The story crosses time, interweaving the lives of English author Mrs. Gaskell  and current-day memoirist Nell Stevens. Very clever but I think Stevens needed a better editor.

20-Lippman, Laura. Lady in the Lake. Pretty good murder mystery — set in 1960s Baltimore — with some extraordinarily well-developed characters. As a former newspaper reporter, I particularly enjoyed the newsroom elements of this story.

21-MacLachlan Gray, John. The White Angel. A true crime story given liberty by turning it into a novel and, even better by putting it in the hands of masterful writer John MacLachlan Gray, famous as author of the play Billy Bishop Goes to War. Bonus points for it being set in my hometown of Vancouver in the 1920s.

22-Lombardo, Claire. The Most Fun We Ever Had. This novel examines almost a half century in the lives of a Chicago-based family with four daughters and their own children. I enjoyed the story but found it overly long. Would have benefited by being cut by about 20 percent.

23-Ciment, Jill. The Body In Question. I read this book because I’d seen reviews putting it a peg above typical murder mysteries. Sadly, I found the story dull. And the characters were poorly developed. But on a happier note, Ciment has a remarkable ear for figurative language, which I blogged about a few weeks ago.

24-Cusk, Rachel. Outline. To me, this book had no discernible plot! Found it both cold and boring even though the writing is superb. To my mind, she didn’t have the same writing chops as Nicholson Baker, (The Mezzanine)  who can write about nothing and make it endlessly fascinating.

25-Crummey, Michael. The Innocents. By Michael, 2019. Even though this book was well written, I really didn’t like this story of two siblings orphaned in the isolation of Newfoundland and the incestuous relationship that resulted.

26-Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. A sci-fi type of story in which people are cloned to provide body parts for others who have been ill. Even though I disliked both the story and the writing style, I can understand why others might like it. Strikes me as one of those books that’s a matter of taste.


I’m still looking for a grad student at an American university who’s struggling with writing their thesis or dissertation. If this describes you and you’d like some advice at no cost, please email me.


My video podcast last week aimed to help writers learn how to emulate other (better) writers. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


What are the best books you’ve read this year? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/19  will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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